Vacant and Abandoned Building Marking Systems

April 18, 2011
Lt. Michael Daley looks at a well-designed marking system that can identify hidden hazards from the exterior, helping firefighters determine their firefighting tactics.

Our nationwide economic downturn has resulted in an increase in the number of vacant and abandoned buildings in all of our response areas. Many organizations and businesses have been forced to cut back or even shut down operations at specific locations, resulting in unoccupied structures that lay dormant. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics have shown that more firefighters are injured while operating at these locations than in any other property classification. Many of these incidents have resulted in fatalities, such as Worcester, MA, in 1999, and more recently, Chicago in December of 2010. There are a few key reasons as to why these buildings pose such risks:

  1. Any unoccupied building or facility becomes an easy target for arsonists, vandals, and burglars who root through these buildings, salvaging what they can for easy cash.
  2. These buildings are often ignored for long periods of time, which can result in poor housekeeping and maintenance issues (see Photo 1).
  3. Utilities and other building services, such as fire-suppression systems, are cut off without consideration of the remaining fire load that remains in the building.

A lot of emergency responders use the terms “vacant” and “abandoned” as the same, but there is a significant difference between the two types. A vacant building is a building that may be empty or unoccupied, but there exists an owner with an expressed interest in the building. One example that our department uses is what we call a “transitional building” that is in the process of changing ownership, but is uninhabited, such as the sale and transfer of ownership of a single-family residential dwelling (see Photo 2). An abandoned building is a building where there is no visible or clear cut owner/landlord of the building, or one that can easily be contacted. These buildings are usually unsecure and poorly maintained, raising the risk level to responders when they arrive for an emergency at this location (see Photo 3).

The Hazards Within

The most costly risk that is in the forefront for responders regarding these buildings is fire. These buildings, when left open to unauthorized entry, have a very high probability of incendiary fires. In fact, between 2003 and 2006, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that more than 30,000 structure fires were set in vacant and abandoned buildings, resulting in more than 50 deaths, 4,500 injuries to firefighters and well over $600 million in damages per year. The mixture of the resolve of the arsonist combined with the deterioration of the buildings due to age and weather will significantly weaken these structures. Interior hazards to firefighters include open floors and pits, stairways removed from floors, holes in walls for fire spread, and compromised suppression systems. These buildings also pose a significant threat to exposures. With no one reporting these fires until they are well advanced, exposure spread can be expected to occur rapidly, increasing the potential for a conflagration (see Photo 4).

The next most prominent threat is vandalism and theft. A large proportion of thefts in vacant and abandoned buildings involve the removal of copper electrical or plumbing materials. These incidents diminish the capabilities of suppression and notification systems that are in place in the event of a fire or emergency. Furthermore, the degradation of these properties becomes an eyesore on the community, as maintenance and upkeep diminish to a point where the structure can be deemed unsafe.

Bad weather can also be a detriment to the building. In the case where the heat has been cut off, the potential for a broken pipe in the building is high. This leak can flow for days and can lead to catastrophic failure to a part of or even the entire building. When maintenance is reduced or eliminated, dangerous situations can lay in wait (see Photo 5). Consider the collection of snow or rain that sits atop the roof due to clogged drains; this can lead to excessive loads and collapse of the roof assembly.

A System for Fair Warning

In the International Fire Code (IFC), 2006 edition, Section 311 provides some guidance for dealing with vacant premises. This section covers temporarily unoccupied structures and abandoned buildings, and how to safeguard each of them. The document provides guidance when it comes to securing these buildings, safeguarding vacant premises, handling utilities, removal of combustibles and hazardous materials, and fire separation partitions. Of significant importance is the section regarding the placarding of these buildings; in a building that is deemed to be “unsafe” pursuant to the Uniform Construction Code, the Uniform Fire Code shall be placarded accordingly. The IFC identifies the following placard system:

A placard shall be 24 inches by 24 inches with a red background, white reflective stripes and a white reflective border. They are to be placed on the front of the structure and have to be visible from the street. Additional placards shall be placed on the other sides of the building as well. The placard will have the date of the inspection on it as well.

A placard with an open square shall signify that the building had normal structural conditions at the date of the inspection.

A placard with a single diagonal slash shall signify that there are interior hazards to the structure and that interior firefighting operations should be conducted with extreme caution.

A placard with an “X” in the square shall signify that there are significant structural deficiencies within the building, limiting firefighting to exterior operations only, “…with entry only occurring for known life hazards” (see Photos 6 and 7).

If your department does not have any protocols regarding operations and procedures when dealing with these buildings, it is highly recommended that this code requirement be adopted locally by the authority having jurisdiction.

Additionally, our department utilizes an inspection checklist that has been developed by the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), in conjunction with the USFA; it is available for download below by typing “Vacant/Abandoned Building Form” into your favorite search engine. This evaluation form covers multiple areas of concern for our responders; it provides the name and phone number of the property owner, the building security system, working utilities, construction type, status of any fire protection systems, fire potential, overall condition of the structural components, exposures, and any additional hazards that may be on site.

Our fire prevention bureau performs the inspection on a vacant or abandoned building, and files the report with the local construction subcode official. An additional copy of this report is given to the responders, and the information is updated into the pre-plan system that we use in our on-board mobile data terminals. This provides the initial responders critical information for decision-making within the first few minutes of the operation, and the presence of the placard will raise the awareness of the first arriving incident commander (see Photo 8).


The staggering increase in the number of vacant and abandoned buildings across our nation continues to grow exponentially. Many of the communities’ responders across the nation cannot provide a close approximation, or an accurate count, of the amount of vacant and abandoned buildings in the jurisdiction they protect. This year, adopt a resolution to make a sincere effort to preplan all of your high-hazard occupancies, and identify all of your vacant and abandoned buildings; the safety of your team members depend on it.

Until next time, stay focused and stay safe.

MICHAEL P. DALEY is a lieutenant and training officer with the Monroe Township, NJ, Fire District No. 3, and is an instructor with the Middlesex County Fire Academy, where he is responsible for rescue training curriculum development. Mike has an extensive background in fire service operations and holds degrees in business management and public safety administration. Mike serves as a rescue officer with the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 and is a managing member for Fire Service Performance Concepts, a consultant group that provides assistance and support to fire departments with their training programs and course development. You can reach Michael by e-mail at: [email protected].

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